West Papua, 60 years on (remembering 1 December 1961)

The Indigenous people of West Papua have been struggling for independence from Indonesia since Indonesia’s invasion of the territory in 1962. Since that time, Indonesia’s occupation of West Papua has resulted in ongoing human rights abuses from Indonesian security forces, massive deforestation and destruction of the land for resource extraction, racial discrimination against Indigenous Papuans, mass displacement of Papuans from their Indigenous lands as refugees and internally displaced persons, and the systematic destruction of a Papuan identity.

2021 is a significant year as it marks the 60th anniversary of the first raising of West Papua’s symbol of independence, the Morning Star Flag. Sixty years ago the Nieuw Guinea Raad (New Guinea Council) raised the Morning Star flag alongside the Dutch flag across West Papua for the first time, on 1 December 1961.

The event was a milestone in West Papua’s ongoing path to national self-determination, which had begun when the Netherlands registered West Papua with the United Nations as a Non-Self-Governing Territory in December 1950. The self-determination project was short-lived, however, with West Papua being invaded through Operation Trikora by Australian-backed Indonesian forces.

The Morning Star Flag continues to be a powerful unifying symbol for West Papua’s struggle for economic, social and political self-determination. Raising the flag in Indonesia carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years. West Papuans, as Melanesian people of the Pacific, continue to stand defiant against Indonesia’s fictitious claims to their land and identity.

(The flag is used by the Free Papua Organization and other independence supporters. It consists of a red vertical band along the hoist side, with a white five-pointed star in the center, and thirteen horizontal stripes, alternating blue and white, with seven blue stripes and six white ones. The seven blue stripes represents seven customary territories in the region.)

The Pacific Conference of Churches, with the Papua New Guinea Council of Churches, has strongly condemned the institutional racism against the indigenous npeople of West (Tanah) Papua and the increase of Indonesian militarisation in Papua that comes with this. PCC General Secretary, Rev. James Bhagwan and PNGCC General Secretary, Rev. Roger Joseph, have stated that the oppression of Papuan people underlines the need for an urgent investigation of ongoing abuse of

Human Rights, the Economic, Social and Cultural and Political rights of West Papuans, by the United Nations.

In 2019, the WCC Executive Committee released a statement of concern and solidarity for West Papua, a supporting the church leaders’ joint appeal for a comprehensive political dialogue, and calling on the Government of Indonesia to allow access to human rights organisations and journalists. The statement also invited all WCC member churches “to pray and act in support of the witness of the churches in West Papua – and that of PGI, PCC, and CCA – for justice and peace in the region.”

(The Uniting Church in Australia is a member of the Pacific Conference of Churches and the World Council of Churches.)

Map courtesy of the ABC

Sadly, the Australian Government has been notably silent on the issue of violence and human rights abuses in West Papua, being bound by the controversial 2006 Lombok Treaty to respect Indonesia’s “territorial integrity”.

The theme of this year’s flag raising is Youth Rize for Land Rights. In the words of West Papuan activist Cyndi Makabory: “What resonates for me with the theme is young people are the leaders of today not ‘tomorrow’, what I’m seeing in West Papua and outside of West Papua is that youths are mobilising and propelling movements”.

There are a number of West Papuans who are active in the Canberra City Congregation—they play together in worship, as some were members of the popular Black Brothers band (see https://asiapacificreport.nz/2016/09/20/west-papuas-black-brothers-message-to-png-musicians-stay-committed/). Elizabeth “discovered” them when she was ministering in the Canberra City Congregation in 2017. They include Benny Bettay and Willem Ayamiseba.

You can read the remarkable story of courage and tenacity of one of the West Papuan leaders, Benny Wenda, at https://www.freewestpapua.org/info/benny-wendas-story/

For people of faith in Australia, the continuing injustices seen in this near neighbour merit attention and prayer. We yearn for justice, we seek to see oppression end in West Papua.

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I have prepared this post in conjunction with Jack Johnson, regional organiser of the Free West Papua Youth—Australia Team, and a member of the St Columba’s Uniting Church, Braddon, in the ACT.

Compassionate carer, non-anxious presence, listening ear, relationship-building companion: the ministry of the Chaplain

The November 2021 meeting of the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia met on 20 November. We had identified that the focus for the meeting would be Chaplaincy. Across the Presbytery, there are nineteen people (stipended, salaried, or volunteers) in ministry in hospitals, prisons, universities, and aged care centres, as well as community chaplaincy, disaster chaplains (on standby), and defence force chaplains.

Jean Shannon, the minister in placement with the Sapphire Coast congregation, began the meeting with a very pertinent devotion. Jean has previously served as a chaplain to the Canberra Hospitals, and as an ordained Deacon, has a strong commitment to ministry beyond the gathered community of faith, in the wide community.

In opening the meeting with a devotional reflection, Jean offered some thoughts about her understanding and practice of chaplaincy. She noted that chaplains “hear the small voices and see the invisible ones”. She went on to claim that the fundamental element in the act of listening, for a chaplain, is not so much to hear the voice of the person speaking, but “to listen for God—to listen for your God”.

Andrew Mead is the chaplain to the Canberra Hospitals; he was invited to offer a keynote address on Chaplaincy to the meeting. Andrew made reference to the contributions on their particular form of chaplaincy that many of the chaplains in the Presbytery have made, in their articles that have been collected in the most recent issue of Viewpoint, the Presbytery magazine.

See https://canberra.uca.org.au/dates-events-and-publications/viewpoint-summer-2021/

In speaking about chaplaincy, Andrew identified that it has both a pioneering role, moving beyond the space occupied by the congregation; and a representative role, firmly connected to the life of the church, not independent of it.

Andrew noted that chaplaincy exists simply to offer an experience of the good news of Jesus Christ through relationships with people. It is a calling to be a sign and instrument of the reign of God instigated by Jesus, demonstrating a realm of love, reconciliation, and justice (drawing, here, on words from the UCA’s Basis of Union).

Chaplains, said Andrew, do not change the world; rather, they make an impact on people, one by one, through their caring, listening, and relationship building. The hope is that such relationships make a difference in ways that matter, as individual transformations build into communal change.

Andrew noted that organisations which have chaplains expect well trained, credentialed ministers, consistent with the expectations of other positions, who are also well-attuned to the spiritual dimensions of life. Thus, chaplains need to be both formed for ministry by the church and equipped for work within the formal structures of their employing organisation.

Andrew offered the picture of a chaplain as an icon: a visible representation of the spiritual dimension of human life, literally embodied in the being of the chaplain. When a chaplain is present with a person, there is the possibility that such a deeper insight might emerge for the people that are being engaged by the chaplain.

Within the Presbytery, work has been underway to provide a longer-term, substantial response to the impact of the bushfires of 2019–2020 in the south coast region that is served by the Presbytery. A position description has been approved for a South Coast Community Chaplaincy role, hopefully to commence in early 2022. Funding for this position has come from the Moderator’s Appeal fund, as well as the Mount Dromedary Parish, two other Congregations within the Presbytery, the Presbytery itself, and some individuals wishing to support this ministry.

Andrew noted that governments now recognise the value that is provided by “non-clinical mental health support”, and so this opens the way for such a form of community chaplaincy as is being proposed. It is a good recognition of the value of “religious services” or “spiritual resources” in a society that some say is becoming more secular and opposed to religion. In this instance, the opening for ministry is significant.

What does a chaplain offer? The art of being present, in peace and steadiness, is a gift to people in need; the chaplain offers an anchor in the midst of all that is going on. Calming the mind and spirit, fostering a quiet which can end the inner clamour, and offering a non-anxious presence in the midst of anxiety, are all deeper dimensions that chaplaincy can offer.

Chaplains seek to listen deeply, to hear the sources of resilience and wellbeing within the other person, accepting them just as they are, allowing these elements of the person’s inner strength to emerge in their own time. Chaplains seek to enliven the biblical stories as myth and symbol, to resonate with our spirituality. As relationships are built, a ripple effect can be seen from the work of the chaplain outwards to others.

During COVID, Andrew noted that some chaplains were refused entry to their institutions, and told to go home. For others, they were part of a small group of people permitted entry to offer care. In hospitals, the sense of suffering has been amplified and magnified for patients and their families. The impact on staff has been huge; there has been a slow erosion of the resilience of staff, eating away over 20 months of intense crisis. Andrew recounted a recent time which was, for him, the most critical experience of crisis that he has had in years of chaplaincy.

In such contexts, chaplains connect with human need in unexpected ways, maintaining the affirmation of the Gospel, as expressed in John 1: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”.

Presbytery Co-chairperson, Ross Kingham, then invited people in the session to a time of prayer, noting the intense cost of pain bearing, as carers carry much in them selves as they relate to those they encounter.

Members of the Presbytery were given time in small groups; each one was focussed on a different form of chaplaincy: hospital, prisons and indigenous, university, aged care, community and disaster response, and defence force chaplaincies. Reports back from these groups showed a strong commitment to ensuring the presence of the church, and of spirituality, in each of these contexts.

Chaplains engage with the emotional needs of hospital patients and visitors—and staff. They bear the pain of people and offer the hope of the Gospel. They relate to people undergoing major and significant life changes in aged care, and walk with them on that journey. They provide friendship to students in a new and unfamiliar university environment, as well as engaging with the intellectual curiosity of students as they explore religious issues.

Chaplains in defence settings encounter trauma and moral injury. Chaplains in prisons sit with people in major crisis moments, in what may be an alien environment, facing huge personal challenges. And as chaplains in community and disaster response settings enter into relationships, they both respond to immediate presenting needs, often in time-critical ways, as well as ensuring that they are attuned to deeper issues which may manifest as the relationship develops.

The connection (or sense of disconnection) that chaplains may feel in relation to the church as a whole, was one issue that was identified for careful attention.

For myself, as I listened to the devotions, the keynote address, and the reporting-back from the discussion groups, a question formed in my mind. What if all disciples,,whether ordained or lay, saw the importance of exercising a chaplaincy-like “ministry of presence” in their daily lives?

The Uniting Church has established two forms of ordained ministry: Ministers of the Word, called to minister with the gathered community (preaching the Word, presiding at sacraments, and offering pastoral care), and Deacons, called to minister with the scattered community (being the presence of Christ in the places of everyday life).

By analogy, we might press the challenge to those faithful people who “belong to church” and faithfully participate in worship on a regular basis. When they come into the gathered community (Sunday worship, Bible Study or fellowship groups), they participate in the ministry of the Word. But that is a relatively small percentage of time for their whole week. Perhaps one hour, perhaps four or five, maybe even ten or so hours—out of 168 hours in every week.

What of the other time during the week? All those people are “in the community”, amongst the scattered community, day by day, in their regular lives. What if each and every disciple of Jesus sought to be that compassionate carer, that non-anxious presence, that listening ear, that relationship-building companion, in ways that invited those people with whom they encounter to see them as “a sign and instrument of the reign of God instigated by Jesus, demonstrating a realm of love, reconciliation, and justice” in the ways that they speak, act, and relate to those people.

And—lo and behold—one comment towards the end of the report-back session made exactly that same point! As disciples, we are called to be chaplains—to live the love of God, to enact the justice of God, each and every day.

If the kingdom of God is ever going to happen on earth … (John 18; Christ the King Year B)

A dialogue sermon written by Elizabeth Raine and delivered online by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires at Tuggeranong Uniting Church and at Canberra Aboriginal Church on Sunday 21 November, the Festival of Christ the King.

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Today is known in the lectionary as Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. It is a relative newcomer to the liturgical calendar, arriving only in the early twentieth century. Apparently this was because at that time, many Christians in Mexico were suffering religious persecution from their anti-religious government, and secularism was rapidly gaining the upper hand both there and in Europe.

In 1925, to counteract this, the Roman Catholic Church declared this day as a worldwide celebration of the kingship of Christ over every earthly power. Its timing at the conclusion of the Season after Pentecost was fixed both by Vatican II and the subsequent Protestant developments of the lectionary, including our own UC in Uniting in Worship.

With the rise of secular atheism, people are more likely nowadays to pledge allegiance to political and consumerist organisations than they do to kings or the politics of God as revealed in Scripture. These Scriptures make clear, as does the ministry of Jesus, that God’s politics are not identifiable with those of democracies or typical kings.

In this scene from John, we hear Pilate asking Jesus the question “So you are a king?” I wonder: what does this mean about Jesus? What sort of a king could he be?

A: I know what sort of king he is! Remember when we were children, we imagined whatkings would look like, from all the stories we heard as children. A king or queen sits on a throne, has very fine robes and a crown made of gold and precious jewels. People bow down before the feet of the king in these stories. And look at how people act around the Queen! In her presence, they bow and curtsey.

B: Well, I don’t think Jesus is that sort of king at all. Where in the bible does it talk about Jesus having a throne, or jewels, or fine robes, or a golden crown? Falling at the feet of Jesus is a very different encounter. His feet are dirty and bloody, his body broken and beaten, his head bowed beneath the a crown of thorns. Jesus was executed by crucifixion, which was saved for the worst criminals and political rebels. Jesus at the end looked broken and defeated, and is definitely not what we might imagine as a king.

I think this scene is deeper than that. Pilate wants to know if Jesus sees himself as king of the Jews. PiIate might be thinking of thrones and crowns, but Jesus isn’t. He is thinking of something quite different, I am sure. I can see it now: Pilate, the messenger of the earthly kingdom of Rome facing off with Jesus, the messenger of God’s unearthly kingdom.

A: I hear what you are saying, but are you sure about the unearthly bit? After all, Jesus was pretty intentional about challenging the earthly empire and the corruption in authority. Look at him when the widow gave everything, he was exposing systems that were oppressive; and what about when he turned over the tables at the temple? That would have infuriated the temple priests, men who were in the pay of, and appointed by Rome itself, at the time.

B: He did say his kingdom wasn’t an earthly one.

A: On thinking about it, maybe being king of an unearthly kingdom means you act differently when you ARE on earth. Look at Jesus when he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, allowing the crowd to shout out Hosanna (which means save us), and acclaim him as a king. His allowing the crowd to shout seditious things at him, would have made him a target not only of the temple priests, but of their Roman masters. Jesus must have known such actions would lead to him being arrested.

B: Hmmm, I see what you are saying. That is a very interesting idea. It is unfortunate that over the centuries, the subversive message of this unlikely king has been somewhat lost. So on the one hand, we have Jesus, the king who: * refused to allow fighting * would not grant prime posts to cronies * would not live in a fine house * refused to hate enemies or plot their downfall * mixed with the common crowds without any sense of royal dignity * refused to play political games to increase his power * did not dress in fine robes, or wear a jewelled crown.

A: But in reality, one the other hand, Jesus is pictured as a heavenly King with a worldly majesty: * who was painted in crowns and fine robes * who was given features similar to earthly monarchs * in whose church was created courtiers and princely representatives * in whose name people blessed their armies as they attacked the cities of their enemies * and of whom the church taught that the next time he came things would be very different as he would subdue the earth and put all opposition under his boot.

B: Well, that does raise some tricky issues. Today on the festival of Christ the King, I think it is important that we think about this. Which kind of King do we want to be worshipping? Will the real Jesus please stand up?

 A: I have been reading about this actually.

B: You? Reading?

A: Yes, me. Now stop with the smart answers. I have been reading Bruce Prewer, who suggests that we grow like the thing we worship. So who do we want to resemble? The king of power, commanding armies, destroying enemies, with fine robes as depicted by artists at the church’s instigation throughout the centuries? Or the king who mixes with common folk, who says put away your sword, who works to free the oppressed, who welcomes the stranger, who eats with sinners, who overturns the tables of the money changers, and who forgives the people responsible for his death?

B: Wow, that is a great way of looking at it. Do we want to be at the edge of our communities our in the middle of power? We don’t know what the future of our world will look like, but surely the kingdom of God shouldn’t have fear or hate or oppression in it.

A: That’s right. If the kingdom of God as Jesus saw it is ever going to happen on earth, then every interaction, every decision, every moment and every place we find ourselves in must be seen as an opportunity to experience God’s reign in our lives, and to share the blessing of God’s reign with others. We need to turn our faith into a life-transforming practice, rather than just an intellectual assent to some ideas about God.

B: For Christ to truly be King in our world, Christ must be King in every individual lives in such a way that God’s peace and justice, God’s love and grace, will constantly flow through us, God’s people, into the world – one moment, one interaction and one transformative step at a time.

A: Surely Christ is the King who turns all of our human notions and illusions of power squarely on their heads. What the world defines as weakness and failure, Jesus shows is the real power rooted in love, bathed in grace, and covered with mercy. He is the one who redeems that which seems unredeemable and the one who loves those who appear unlovable.

By his death, we are offered a way to wholeness and the kingdom of God, a kingdom where love is so powerful that forgiveness is offered to all; where the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, and the poor and the sick are cared for. In standing with this kingly Jesus today, we can fight racism, classism, homophobia, poverty, discrimination, and homelessness.

B: Yes! We can start to work to make the systems of injustice just, and work to overturn the powers of corruption and darkness. We don’t know what the future of our world will look like, but the kingdom of God doesn’t include fear, hate, or shutting down.

We must answer the call of Jesus which hasn’t changed in 2000 years—“Follow me to a kingdom where domination and oppression have been overcome, where the basic human needs are met, where all dwell in harmony with God and each other.”

A: Now that sounds like a king and a kingdom worth working for.

B: Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?”

A: Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37)

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B: Loving God of power and justice and peace, in our broken world we seek a new order where there is courage to speak truth to power;

A: we seek a new order where there is mutual support in church and community;

B: we seek a new order where there is abundant time for healing;

A: we seek a new order where there is peace and freedom for all. Amen.

What does it mean to be Protestant in the Contemporary World?

A guest post from Geoff Dornan, for Reformation Sunday (31 October)

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I want to do three things in this article. I want to ask three questions. First, what is the essence of Protestantism? Second, what is the connection between Protestantism’s essence and what is often understood to be itsbedrock doctrine: justification by grace through faith? Third, what does it mean to be Protestant in our contemporary world, entrenched as it currently is, in arbitrary unreason?

The essence of Protestantism and the Protestant Principle

I would make a bet that most Protestant Christians when asked what being Protestant is about, would answer, “not Catholic”. That was my experience as a child, when I saw that being Protestant carried an essentially negative identity: something that you were not. Creatures of history, we Anglo-Celtic Australiansin particular, read Protestant identity through a sectarian lens, in large part because of the Anglo-Irish conflict of our ancestors. But we need to be able to understand Protestant identity positively, for what it offers in modern times.

And so, to the first question: what is the essence of Protestantism? The answer is both simple and complex.The simple answer is this: protest. That should be no surprise. The word protest sits within the very term Protestant. For those who have a smattering of knowledge about the Reformation of the 16th century, you would know that this ethos of protest was triggered by the practice of indulgences in the then sole western Church, the Catholic Church.

Indulgences were an expression of late medieval piety and ‘coincidentally’, a “nice little earner” for the Church, not to mention a few colourful personalities among the leadership. For example, in 1517, an indulgence to fund the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome – one that promised lavish spiritual benefits for the subscribers – was marketed especially successfully in Saxony by papal “pardoners”.

Not to be outdone, Archbishop Albert of Mainz also promoted the same indulgence and demonstrated his ample entrepreneurial skills, skimming off his own cut.

The mechanics of the indulgence were quite simple. In return for good works such as going on pilgrimage or making charitable donations, indulgences (from the Latin, indulgentia – permit) were believed to set asidethe “temporal punishment” that was due, because of God’s just character, after sin itself had been forgiven.

These transactions were also transferrable to the dead, shortening the suffering of souls in purgatory. It was like a metaphysical tax for sin, which released you from having to pay the consequences – time in purgatory – for that lover, addiction to alcohol, or dodgy financial transaction you may have had.

But there is more to it than this since the protest about indulgences was not just a one-off thing, but rather reflects the very soul of what Protestantism really represents; its DNA.

Paul Tillich
(1886–1965)

Paul Tillich, the German clergyman who fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and ended up in North America, becoming a leading theologian, wrote in 1931 an article called the “Protestant Principle and the Proletarian Situation” (Tillich, The Protestant Era; London, Nisbet & Co Ltd, 1951, pp.237–259). In that article, Tillich made the point that while institutional Protestantism may have a “use-by date”, the ethos that it represents, the ethos of protest, may outlast it.

Tillich proceeds to analyse what this ethos of protest is about. In a nutshell, he says, it includes two points: the first, the Protestant obligation to build justice and love in a resistant world, to build the kingdom of God in a world that denies it.

The second aspect is more subtle, and because of its subtlety, more difficult: the Protestant reservation. What he means by this, isscepticism or doubt about human beings and the cultural, political, and of course religious structures which we build around us.

And the reservation is this: that we claim too much for ourselves, that we over-reach ourselves, that we pretend to represent absolute truth in our world, whichcan always be only ambiguous, always be just relative, always be contingent. In Tillich’s thought, there is targeted in the crosshairs, fundamentalist and authoritarian movements – political and religious – that claim absolute mastery, unqualified power, because they and they alone, apparently ‘possess the truth’.

What is it about the human condition, Tillich asks, that predisposes us to need to claim a monopoly on the truth? Tillich understands that we humans long for the final word, from someone, from anyone; we long for the definitive truth. People hang, literally hang on the words of politicians, scientists, and pastors, slavishly repeating their latest thoughts.

Tillich tells us that the Protestant Principle, pushes back at that, the Protestant reservation asserts that the only absolute truth is this: human beings can never attain absolute truth, that “the final word” is always with God and only with God, and will only be revealed to us at what Catholic theology refers to as the “beatific vision”: when we directly see and relate to God after death or at the end of history.

Tillich argues that claims to understand, to represent the entirety of truth, are delusional and dangerous, that such claims are disastrously tied up with the will to power. And so, he writes, “The Protestant Principle is the prophetic judgement against religious pride, ecclesiastical arrogance and secular self-sufficiency”.

Justification by faith through grace

The second question I want to ask is how does this ethos of protest fit with what the apostle Paul’s idea concerning justification by grace through faith? (Romans 3:19-28)? The answer is not difficult. You may recall that Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation, was an Augustinian friar. What marked his personal journey was a gnawing insecurity and anxiety about his unacceptability to God: a common question for philosophical and theological thought of the time.

Statue of Martin Luther (1483–1546)

Luther’s reading of the book of Romans fell like a thunderclap, awakening him to the realization that he was made acceptable to God by the work of Christ alone. In short, it dawned upon him, that he was already justified before God, by God.

This insight about our acceptability to God, because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, achieves two things. The first, is that it serves as the great leveller, it exposes, uncovers the bloated claims we make for ourselves, the intumescent platforms upon which we stand. Put another way, it goes to the very heart of the problem of the human condition.

Driven by anxiety – a universal human experience – the insight that we are acceptable to God and accepted by God, potentially does for people what it did for Luther: frees us from the pathological need to prove ourselves, the neurotic drive to dominate, the narcissistic behaviour that uses others for our purposes.

The teaching of justification by grace, assures us that “it is not all about us”, that we can get over ourselves and the anxieties that we carry. Justification by grace is the antidote to the human behaviour of over-reach. The second, is that we are not only freed from our individual and collective anxieties, but equally and most importantly, free to really live.

The eminent German theologian, Ernst Käsemann put it this way: “Where we no longer have to strive for our salvation, and no longer need to fear external powers, we become free for other people, for whom we otherwise at most, only find time and attention as allies or opponents.” He adds, “the one who is liberated from himself…perceives his neighbour”. (Käsemann, “On Paul’s Anthropology”, Perspectives on Paul; London, SCM Press, 1971, p.30)

What is then the connection between Tillich’s Protestant Principle and Paul’s idea of justification by grace through faith? They both encourage a genuine and realistic sense of ourselves, a deep humility about our identity. The Protestant Principle warns against the will to power and the doctrine of justification by grace, relieves us of the need to aspire to such power.

Rethinking Ourselves

And so, to the final issue: what does it mean to be Protestant in the contemporary world, a world marked by the peril of unreason?

In my lifetime, I have experienced what I refer to as the increasing dogmatization of Protestantism. This is due to at least two factors: the decreasing literacy of Protestant Christians about their own identity, but additionally in these dogmatic times, reason is failing across the board, and people submit to superficial, perfunctory explanations for complex changing realities.

During my 5 years in the United States (1999-2004), that which concerned me most was the distortion, subversion of evangelical Protestantism, as it rapidly became the religious tail of a conservative Republican Party worldview.

More recently, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has shown itself to be headed in the same direction for different reasons, truncating the breadth of Catholic Social Teachings to emotive narrow issues, in particular opposition to Roe v. Wade (1973), a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court regarding a woman’s right to abortion.

In Australia, organizations like the Australian Christian Lobby, an evangelical body whose very name misleadingly suggests it speaks for the broad church, pursues a not dissimilar but marginally more moderate agenda.

In this new disturbing situation, Luther’s insight into Paul’s justification by grace through faith, and Tillich’s Protestant Principle, ask us to be cautious about faith’s creeping dogmatization and predisposition to authoritarianism.

The danger is two-fold: first that we fail to acknowledge the limitedness of our faith interpretations, we claim too much for ourselves, we overreach ourselves. But secondly, we idolatrize Scripture and Doctrine with a quasi-sacramental weight, forgetting that truth transcends all human fixation, even the letters of a sacred book.

Protestantism then, is not just about “not being Roman Catholic”. It is, positively speaking, about challenging all fundamentalist claims to absoluteness, in a world where social, economic, political and religious power increasingly do just that. The deep, deep insight of Protestantism is as Martin Luther put it in one of his better moments: “Christian theology, like everything else, is only ever partial. Total faith and total theology are impossible because we are only human.”

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The Rev. Dr Geoff Dornan is minister in placement at Wesley Forrest Uniting Church in Canberra. This article was originally written in Spanish and published in Revista Latinoamericana de Teologia through the Central American University in El Salvador.

Pastoral Letter to Canberra Region Presbytery, October 2021

“Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Heb 10:25). That’s a verse that has often been quoted when discussing the importance of worship—and, in the past 20 months, when thinking about whether we can worship together in the church building.

As we consider a return to in-person worship and fellowship, let us hold the exhortation to “encourage one another” alongside of the importance of “meeting together”. There are a few guiding principles that would be good for us to hold in mind.

1. We have all experienced stress and anxiety for the past few months—indeed, for the past 20 months. Let us be gentle with each other. Let us remember, in each interaction that we have, that we are all bruised. Some might feel close to being broken. Some might feel traumatised by news from the past period of time. Some might feel that they have been very lonely for some time now. Some might have been ill, or known people that became very ill, during the lockdown. Some might be grieving or remembering past losses.

Let’s try to bear all of this in mind, with each conversation that we have with others, as we seek to encourage one another.

2. Each person returns to in-person worship and fellowship with different expectations. Some might be incredibly excited. Some might be cautious and hopeful. Some might be wary, very worried about being back in a larger group of people. Some might be resenting the decision to return while there is still significant community transmission of the virus. Some might be angry about not having been able to see their friends for the past few months.

Let’s try to bear all of this in mind, with each conversation we have, with each step that we take to ensure that we can worship together safely.

3. Not everybody will be returning to in-person worship and fellowship. Just as we have found ways to remain connected online while in lockdown, so we need to remember such people and continue practices that ensure that they know that they are still an integral part of the community of faith within your Congregation.

Let’s make sure that in leading worship, people online are acknowledged and encouraged as well as people gathering in the building.

4. If you have a Minister or a Pastor who leads your community, please remember that they have been working incredibly hard in the most recent lockdown, and indeed over the whole of the past 20 months. Holding a community together, providing clear-headed leadership, offering inspiration and encouragement in the regular weekly sermons, all in a different situation that none of us have experienced before—this is testing, draining, exhausting.

Let’s be patient with our ministry leaders, pray for them, care for them, and hold them in supportive ways.

5. For each person who serves on Church Council—and especially for the Chairperson and Secretary of your Church Council and the Chairperson, Secretary, and Treasurer of your Congregation—this has been an equally difficult and challenging period. Making decisions about when to regather in person, completing the COVID Safety Plans, explaining the decisions to members of the Congregation, all of this is difficult.

Let’s continue to hold our lay leaders and office bearers in prayer, and let’s remember to thank them for all the difficult discussions they have had and all the hard decisions that they have made during this pandemic. They, too, need encouragement.

6. Remember that your community of faith is more than just the people that you would see, most weeks, on a Sunday morning. There are people “on the fringes” and people “in the community” who look to your Congregation and identify that as the church for them. You may not have seen them for many months. They are most likely still around.

Let’s remember such people and work on rekindling contact with them, developing deeper relationships with them, showing them that the way that we “love each other” is exactly how we really do “love them” as well.

7. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking, or saying, something like, “it’s great to be back to normal now”. For a start, we can never “go back”; we always are “moving on”. And then, we have adapted our routines and adopted new practices over the past 20 months, and we shouldn’t—and cannot—simply drop all of them, all of a sudden.

We have taken up some new things that will stand us in good stead into the future. We don’t yet know that the pandemic is over; we may well have more lockdowns, there may well be drastic rises in infections and hospitalisations, and even deaths. We all hope not. But we do not know.

So let us hold on to hope for the future, without throwing away the lessons and learnings of the recent past. That’s the encouragement we need to give each other.

Ross Kingham and Judy McKinlay, Presbytery Co-Chairs; Andrew Smith and John Squires, Presbytery Ministers

Bearing the mark of the divine: remembering with Families and Friends of Drug Law Reform

Every year in late October, the Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform hold a ceremony to remember loved ones who have died because of drugs. Since the ceremony was first held in 1996, it is estimated that over 20,000 people have died because of drug overdoses.

The ceremony takes place in springtime in beautiful Weston Park in Canberra. The location, beside a memorial on a stone under a locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia), was chosen for the first ceremony in 1996, because of its particular associations for the family of one of the members of FFDLR, whose brother had died earlier that year.

The blossoming locus tree under which the memorial stone lies is a potent symbol for the event: an expression of hope in the midst of remembering and honouring those who have died.

Each spring, the locus tree is in blossom

Bill Bush, Chairperson of FFDLR, notes that “these avoidable deaths have ballooned out to at least 20,000 people since that first ceremony. Then, as now, opiate overdoses have been the main cause.”

“The make-up of those who have died”, Bill advises, “has changed from generally troubled young people trying to cope, pushing boundaries and risk-taking, as young people have always done, to include older Canberrans who, in desperate search for inadequately provided pain relief, have had recourse to illicit substances. There are those who in desperation to shed themselves from a dependency have taken their own life without the aid of any drugs.”

The ceremonies have brought out of the shadows the promise and worth of those who have died and enabled grieving families and friends to draw aside the curtain of shame and stigma with which an unfeeling society has shrouded their loved ones. You can read some of the addresses given over the years at https://www.ffdlr.org.au/remembrance/

Every year, a local politician speaks at the ceremony—this year it was Peter Cain, MLA for Ginnindera, who chairs the Select Committee considering the Decriminalisation Bill. In addition, a family member of someone who has died speaks—this year, Janine Haskins, whose 23 year old daughter, Brontë, was driven to believe that the only relief available to her was to take her own life. She bore witness to a tragic sequence of events leading to the death of Brontë.

This year, also, I was invited to preside over the roll call of names of people who are being remembered, and to speak as a representative of people of faith. Here’s the address that I gave.

*****

I thank you for the invitation to share some thoughts with you this day.

I acknowledge the Traditional owners of the land on which we are gathered, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, and I pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and to those emerging within community.

I also acknowledge those who have died and who we remember today and offer my condolences to those who loved them, particularly the newly bereaved.

(We then shared in a time of silent remembrance, as people recalled their loved one they were remembering.)

Today, as we remember, we recognise that we come to this ceremony from various walks of life, with various experiences, perspectives, and understandings. Our insights about life, our understandings of life in this realm and beyond, are varied. Some of us participate in rituals and in communities that help us to make sense of our lives, and of death, when it takes place. We recognise and value that diversity in our midst today. All are welcomed into this shared moment of remembering.

I join with you today as a representative of people of faith, for whom the loss of life of a loved one is a special moment. It stands as a moment for remembering, grieving, giving thanks for a life, mourning the loss of relationship and connection. No matter what faith tradition, each religion marks such a moment with a sensitive rite of passage, as the person deceased slips away from our reality, into another reality beyond. We gather to remember, grieve, recall with thanks, and comfort one another.

In this time of remembrance today, we mark again those moments of passage for our loved ones—those we have named, and countless others not here named—who have taken that pathway into the beyond. We bring out of the shadows the names and faces, the joys and griefs, the achievements and the unfulfilled hopes, of those who have gone from us.

I join with you as a Christian minister, from a faith community that holds firmly to the conviction that, whilst death is the end of mortal life, it marks a new beginning in our relationship with God. We do not know with clarity and assurance what form that new relationship takes; but we hold with hope to the belief that this life is not the totality of our human existence.

In this time of remembrance today, each of us, in terms of our own personal commitment of faith and hope, grieves the loss of a loved one, yet affirms our hope that their reality, now, has taken them away from the grip of whatever caught them, surrounded them, and led them to the point of death. Beyond those shadows, we hold to the belief that our loved ones live in the light.

And I join with you as a member of the Uniting Church, which has a commitment to stand in support of those who have been bereaved in this situation. In recent years, the Uniting Church has developed the Fair Treatment campaign, in which we join with over 60 partner organisations, and many concerned individuals, to affirm that our policies and our laws must not stigmatise and marginalise the most disadvantaged people in our community. This is a vitally important commitment. (See https://www.fairtreatment.org)

The man who shapes the perspective of the world that I adhere to and seek to follow in my life is the man from Nazareth who sat, befriended, listened, questioned, encouraged, challenged, enriched, expanded horizons. This man from Nazareth would not validate the harsh, uncaring, depersonalising course of action that many of your loved ones have experienced as they grappled with drug dependency, suicidal ideation, or the intensified pain that came with age and disability.

By trusting in the way of the man of Nazareth, I place my faith in the positive and hopeful dimension of humanity. That man, Jesus, affirmed what the sages of old had long declared: we human beings are made in the image of God. Our very beings “radiate the glory of God”, to use the ancient scriptural terminology.

At our own creation, the breath of God was breathed into us, infusing our being with all that God is, all that God offers. Our very beings contain within them the potential to be life-affirming, world-embracing, in hope-filled living, in loving relationships, in caring compassion. Each human being therefore needs to be accorded dignity and respect, as a person bearing the mark of the divine, with the breath of the divine inspiring and enabling our very being.

In my understanding, this high view of humanity undergirds the work of the Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform. A commitment to the value of each individual human life informs the advocacy, the research, the educational work, the relational support, and this annual remembering, of this so-important organisation. We are made in the image of God. We have within us the capacity to be our very best.

Let us continue to hope, to love, to work, to care; to advocate, to persuade, and to rejoice, in this work.

*****

*****

In 1999, the Rev. Gregor Henderson spoke at this event. He said then:

It is not right to treat drug users as criminals, as outcasts, as people who are beneath compassion and love.

It is not right that people die from drug dependency, in alleyways or parks, in living rooms or hospital casualty wards.

It is not right that people die from unintentional overdoses, from highly toxic mixtures of drugs, from shared needles.

It is not right that people die when new approaches and treatments are available but governments lack the courage to permit them.

It is not right that society has been unable to find better ways of caring for drug users and moving them towards rehabilitation.

It is not right that some, the real criminals, profit from the importation and sale of illicit drugs.

It is not right that people, especially young people, are exploited mercilessly by the Mr and Mrs Bigs of the drug trade.

It is not right that parents of young drug users have great difficulty in finding help for their sons and daughters who are using drugs and for themselves as they want desperately to help them.

It is not right that parents are forced to break the law by allowing their drug-using offspring to inject safely at home in preference to throwing them out on the streets.

Surely it is time for a much bigger dose of compassion in relation to illicit drugs.

The shame continues: SIEV X after 20 years

It was 20 years ago yesterday, on 18 October 2001, that a small, overcrowded fishing boat set sail from Sumatra, Indonesia. On board were well over 400 asylum seekers—far too many for the small boat—who had fled the terrors of life in Iraq and Afghanistan. The boat was headed for the Australian territory of Christmas Island, a few hundred kilometres away. Asylum seekers sought to reach Christmas Island so that they could then claim asylum in Australia.

This was completely in accord with the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which Australia accepted—and included in part within legislation adopted in the Migration Act 1958. See https://www.kaldorcentre.unsw.edu.au/publication/refugee-convention

Unfortunately the boat, which was seriously overloaded, sank the next day, 19 October 2001 (20 years ago today). This mean that 353 people drowned (146 children, 142 women and 65 men). The actual name of the boat is not known; it is known today as SIEV X. SIEV is the acronym used by the surveillance forces for a Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel Unknown. The Roman numeral X designates this as the tenth such boat so categorised by Australian authorities. The acronym dehumanises those on board the boat and generalises the tragedies of all those fleeing their homelands.

(This is not the vessel known as SIEV X. It is a photo of a boat filled with refugees, used as an example of the scenario on a SIEV X memorial page, https://www.safecom.org.au/sievx-memorial.htm)

According to survivors,more than 100 people remained alive in the water that night. Two vessels arrived and shone searchlights across the ocean, but they failed to rescue anyone. Some time later, 45 people were rescued by fishermen in the area.

The sinking and deaths occurred during an Australian federal election campaign, soon after the saga that involved the Palapa, another boat that sank, and the Tampa, the Norwegian vessel that rescued those on board the Palapa (see https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/26/20-years-on-and-the-shame-continues-the-palapa-the-tampa-and-children-overboard/) The Federal Government turned these two events into political footballs, tapping into the xenophobia and jingoism of some in the population—and won the election.

The shame that was generated by the callous and illegal actions of the Australian Government in events surrounding each of these incidents continues today, in the ever-worsening policies in our nation relating to refugees and asylum seekers. Whilst Australia has accepted around 190,000 migrants each year for the past few years (around three times the number admitted 25 years ago), there are only around 6,000 refugees admitted within that number each year. (I have taken these figures from a government publication, accessible at https://www.aph.gov.au/about_parliament/parliamentary_departments/parliamentary_library/pubs/rp/rp1617/refugeeresettlement#_Toc461022111)

In 2002, a Senate Select Committee had been established to investigate “A Certain Maritime Incident” (the “children overboard” incident in the whole Palapa—Tampa affair). The committee also investigated the SIEV-X sinking. It concluded that “… it [is] extraordinary that a major human disaster could occur in the vicinity of a theatre of intensive Australian operations and remain undetected until three days after the event, without any concern being raised within intelligence and decision making circles.” (See “Findings” under “SIEV X -Chapters 8 and 9” at https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Former_Committees/maritimeincident/report/a06)

On the weekend almost five years after the sinking (15 September 2006), a memorial to the 353 people who died in that event was opened in Weston Park in Canberra, ACT. The memorial had 353 white poles, each of which had been decorated by a community group, a school group, or a church group, drawn from right around Australia. Each pole represented one of the deceased.

The Uniting Church has a strong connection with this memorial. The artwork for the 353 poles was gathered by a national competition. Pieces from this artwork competition were first displayed at Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, and then at Wesley Uniting Church in Melbourne, before being put on display in Canberra at the Canberra City Uniting Church. At that event in Canberra, the design for the memorial was announced—the poles were to be put into the ground in a design that represented the outline of the vessel, when viewed from above.

Overhead view of the memorial,
from https://www.sievxmemorial.com

The then Prime Minister indicated that the Federal Government was opposed to the project, but the ACT Chief Minister, John Stanhope, opened the project in 2006. Permission had not been granted to make the memorial permanent, so a crowd of people carried the poles into the places designated for them. The event received strong national coverage. Public opinion was galvanised against our inhuman national policy regarding refugees.

The next year, 2007, the memorial became permanent. It remains to this day as a reminder of the willingness of the Australian people to assist our neighbours in need; and the intransigence of our federal leadership (sadly, a bipartisan intransigence) when it comes to such matters.

The need to be a welcoming country to people who are rightly fleeing the persecution and violence being perpetrated against them in their homelands, is still an issue today, as the Christians United for Afghanistan project indicates. See https://www.unitedforafghanistan.com/#sign

The photos I have used were taken just recently (October 2021) by Willem Kok, a member of the Yarralumla Uniting Church, which is the Uniting Church Congregation that serves the area that includes Weston Park and the SIEV X memorial.

Celebrating creation: Job 38 and Psalm 104 (Pentecost 21B)

A sermon preached by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on 17 October 2021

This week, there have been many school students striking around the world for something to be done about climate change. Young people are very concerned about the impacts of climate change, and the future of life on our planet.

Despite the growing evidence of the consequences of climate change, such as huge fires, floods, rising seas and extreme weather events, many governments and corporations around the world continue to subsidise the fossil fuel industry, putting all of us at risk.

Young people (and many of the rest of us!) believe that if we don’t take action now and transition swiftly away from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy, things are just going to get worse.

Climate change is the greatest challenge we have confronted as a human species. To stop emitting waste carbon dioxide completely within the next five or 10 years, we would need to radically reorient almost all human economic and social production, a task that while it looks almost impossible, really does need to happen if human and other mammalian life forms are to continue existing. It will demand an agreement and global coordination between nations on a scale never seen before.

Despite this, much of our world still pursues a decidedly unsustainable environmental course. Even worse, a disproportionate share of the consequences of climate change is borne by the very poor, those 40% of our fellow human beings who live in “poverty” (1.5 billion people) or “extreme poverty” (the 1 billion people who earn less than $2 a day).

We have island nations that will be consumed by a rising sea, nations where subsidence farmers will no longer be able to grow food and climate refugees from places like Bangladesh who will see their land flooded and become uninhabitable. Without significant changes, planet earth will exact a heavy price for our choices.

But what does our scriptures have to say about this? Is there a faith imperative to act? There are many parts of the Hebrew bible that celebrate creation, and that emphasise that its gifts are God-given. In return for this gift, the human creature is meant to care for creation.

So as well as science and environmental expertise, our scriptural tradition is also informing our motives and choices. If God created the world and called it good, and then made a covenant after the flood narrative with every living creature, all life, and with the very earth itself, then surely we should be reaffirming our commitment to creation as its caring stewards.

Starting right at the beginning of our scripture with the creation narrative, we might note in Genesis that God states that God’s creation is “very good.” If the human creature is created in the image of God, and not only looking like God but having something of the character of God, then surely our purpose would not be to destroy the creation that God declared as ‘good’ but to keep it that way.

Two of the passages on the lectionary today take a different, but very important direction. Both Psalm 104 and Job put forward the notion that the human creature is but one among many creatures, and all are seen as equally important within the framework that is creation.

Psalm 104 makes it very clear that all creation is not only dependent on God, but there are many parts of it dependent on each other. God holds it all in balance, and each of the component parts interact with each other in necessary ways. Some would say it is a poetic way of describing an ecosystem. The creation is represented as a living, breathing entity, where all creatures are nephesh and filled with the breath or spirit of God. All have their place, none is more important than the other.

Our next reading from the book of Job describes creation as a delicately balanced system that God takes care of, including animals and isolated geographical areas, not just the human part of it. God provides food and shelter for wild animals that have nothing to do with humanity as such, and God causes it to rain in wild and desolate areas where humans are not.

This particular verse is very striking, as unlike Genesis, God is emphasising to Job that mortals like him are no more important in the creation than anything else. Everything is equal and all contribute to the goodness of the created. The book of Job has defined and marked the extent of things like rain, wind, snow and sunshine.

God in Job makes it clear that the creation of the earth and heavens runs on specific laws that allow the whole system to function for the benefit of everything. Therefore, the book of Job raises the question about whether it is advisable for humanity to irrevocably alter the creation as God has set it out. What will be the consequences if we do so?

Video: The Sixth Mass Extinction http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0aHPeqg2zI

So here we have two readings where humans are not the centre of God’s story and all creatures are — literally – created as our equals. The relationship appears to be non-exploitative, with all creatures secure in the place or habitat God has created for them.

Far from maintaining the delicate ecosystem balance set out by God that these writings imply, the earth’s capacity to sustain life is threatened by an ever-expanding human population and growing material demands. We are depleting earth’s nonrenewable resources and exceeding the environment’s capacity to absorb the pollutants we discard. This is particularly true of C02, the main gas driving climate change.

If nothing else, simple self-interest should remind us that all life remains fundamentally dependent upon being an integral part of a functioning ecosystem. Our fate is bound up with the fate of the planet.

Unless some miracle happens, the next 20 years are going to see increasingly chaotic global climate patterns, unpredictable biological adaptation and human responses that includes scapegoating and war over scarce resources. By the middle and later decades of this century — my grandchildren’s adult lives — this could look like a Mad Max story that should be filling us all with horror.

Our children and grandchildren will confront a range of outcomes that will be determined by the choices we make now. Whose voices will be heard the loudest? The fossil fuel industry and those whom it enriches? Or the voice of those who research the scientific evidence and those who are watching their homelands sink beneath the waves?

The worst outcomes of our consumptive lifestyles could be avoided if we did something concrete now. Are we willing to not only change our own habits, but to actively lobby our government to change theirs, and develop policies which will nurture and create life, rather than destroy and de-create it? Do we care enough to stop the sixth great extinction of species on the planet that God created and called “very good”?

The Christian Church has a particular calling to re-vision a much more holistic view of how we see and use God’s world, and how we look after the life that God has created on our planet. If we see the whole world and everything in it as the house of God, as the psalmist writes in Psalm 24, we may be more likely to treat everything and everyone with dignity and respect.

We need to value the things that cannot be counted, such as the beauty of a wilderness, river or forest. Consumer choices and economic growth should not be the only measure of good stewardship and well-being. Surely God intended us to treat our neighbours, including our fellow creatures, fairly and with love, and his creation with care. If members of God’s family continue to suffer because some of us are taking too much or many of God’s wild creatures continue to experience the threat of mass extinctions, we are not growing a more holistic household of God on our planet.

We are at a critical point in history, facing some considerable challenges including the damaging effects of human-induced climate change, the depletion of cheap abundant energy and a global food shortage. These challenges are global and they are connected to each other as both cause and consequence.

They are the results of social, political and economic systems that have come to do more harm than good; systems built on values of greed, power and materialism. We have developed a global economic system that is now diminishing, rather than improving our capacity to live sustainably on our planet.

The Christian life is not judged by comfort and prosperity and reward by God – especially not financially – but by suffering with the Christ and by the giving up of those things that distract or impede us. It is a challenging message. I hope that we, as the Uniting Church, can re-imagine a world where creation is treated with respect and all peoples are seen as equal.

And I hope that by doing so, we can tackle the cause of climate change appropriately and ensure the future of our planet and its fragile ecosystems for the grandchildren and great grand children of all the peoples of the earth.

See the source image
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See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/02/living-through-lifes-problems-job-1-pentecost-19b/

Hope in a broken world (Job 23; Pentecost 20B)

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/24/coping-with-chaos-and-death-the-wisdom-of-job-pentecost-22b/

Mental Health Day, 10 October

Every year in Australia, the month of October is designated as Mental Health Month. It encompasses World Mental Health Day, which is 10 October. This year, Mental Health Foundation Australia is running an Awareness Campaign with the very relevant theme of “Mental Health: Post Pandemic Recovery Challenges and Resilience”.

The focus for this month provides an opportunity to bring mental health out in the open, to improve understanding of mental health issues, and to remove the stigma associated with mental health. The aim is to showcase mental illness as a source of strength for people.

Each year 1 in 5 Australians experience a mental health issue. Approximately half of all individuals (45%) will experience issues with mental health in their lifetime. This could be anyone we know: a loved one, a family member, a friend, a colleague, a neighbour. It could well be ourselves.

People struggling with mental health issues often find themselves isolated, lonely and left to cope on their own. This month reminds us how important it is to reach out and support those in the community who suffer in silence. Simple things, like paying attention, listening carefully, and offering support, can mean much to someone having a mental health episode.

The best guidance for attending to someone struggling in this way is not to judge, not to dismiss their concerns as trivial, and not to try to cheer them up. Deep listening, quietly empathising, compassionate support, are the best things to offer such a person.

Curiously, recent data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicates that suicide rates are the lowest they’ve been since 2016. This aligns with what is being observed in many countries around the world, reversing a climbing trend prior to COVID-19. It is thought that the pandemic has fostered a deeper sense of connectedness or shared societal worry about facing the pandemic together. Alongside that, the JobKeeper payment and other economic support measures provided by governments may well have had a protective effect.

A recent ABC report indicates that younger people have been disproportionately affected by many of the pandemic’s negative consequences, with declining mental health outcomes reported by an increasing number. They are more likely to be unemployed or in insecure work, given they account for a larger proportion of the casual or gig workforce. Younger people have also had to encounter mass upheavals to their education, social connection and future employment or study prospects. This trend was already evident before the pandemic. It has increased over the past 18 months.

The Black Dog Institute, in partnership with Mission Australia, reports that one in four young people reported experiencing psychological distress in 2020, with the prevalence of this twice as high for young women than young men.

We have known for a long time that more men take their life than women each year. However, the data indicates that women engage in self-harm at a higher rate and make more suicide attempts than men. While rates of suicide overall have declined in the 2020 data, sadly the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people dying by suicide has increased in the past year.

Within the Uniting Church, we have a long partnership with Lifeline, which provides Australians experiencing emotional distress with access to 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention services. In fact, Lifeline started as a ministry outreach from the Methodist Church, a precursor to the Uniting Church; it began in Sydney as an initiative of the late Alan Walker, superintendent minister of the then Central Methodist Mission. Lifeline (13 11 14) is always just a phone call away. See https://www.lifeline.org.au/

On their website, Lifeline states that when you ring them, you will talk with a person who will: “Listen without judgment — Provide a safe space to discuss your needs, worries or concerns — and Work with you to explore options for support”. That’s a model that we each can seek to implement in our own interactions with people we know who may be experience a mental health episode.

Miriam Parker-Lacey, Minister in placement at St Columba’s Braddon and Canberra City, and UCA Chaplain at ANU, is a Mental Health Matters trainer, and she has provided this training to people within the Presbytery in recent times. Being aware of how we can help friends or family who are facing the challenge of mental health is an important skill for us to learn.

The challenge of COVID-19 to Social Ethics as we know them

A guest blog by the Rev. Dr Geoff Dornan, minister with the Wesley Forrest Uniting Church Congregation in Canberra, ACT.

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. Its impact upon the way we reason ethically has been immeasurable. There were the portentous signs in the first wave of infection of 2019-2020, especially in Italy, as clinical practice was tested as never before. I recall the Italian peak body for anaesthetics and critical care issuing a divisive guideline about the allocation of intensive care resources, suggesting an upper age limit for ventilator eligibility, the implicit condoning of ventilator withdrawal if necessary, and a ‘pragmatic’ focus upon maximizing clinical outcomes.

It could be said that there was little new in this. After all, much of it had been anticipated in longstanding clinical policy about the allocation of scarce healthcare resources, in what was known as the “fair innings” argument. The point, however, was not the clinical theory per se, but rather the shock of having to actually put such theory into practice on a wide scale.

Another clinical issue, as the virus spread across the world, was the relationship between patients and healthcare providers. Hospitals cancelled elective surgery to save on PPE supplies, beds, and human resources. Access to ICU level care was restricted and strict infection prevention controls were also put into place. Many patients faced prolonged precautionary isolation without the reprieve of visits from friends or family.

As if these challenges to clinical ethical practice, were not enough, COVID has also tested public health policy. As governments implemented biosecurity powers to ensure compliance with business closures and social distancing measures, available technologies were deployed to ensure adherence to new laws and contact tracing of those who contracted COVID-19. The use of phone metadata to locate and track individuals, occurred even in liberal democracies, as the seriousness of the pandemic intensified.

Phone applications were also introduced by governments in several countries to communicate with surrounding phones through Bluetooth, so as to record those with whom a person had been in close contact. In some cases, GPS tracking was also utilized: something generally restricted to police functions.[i] The public health emergency powers enacted in liberal democracies during the COVID-19 crisis have permitted to some extent a power imbalance between governments and citizens. Moreover, and most importantly, the framing of public health as a security issue, continues to allow exceptional actions to be taken, beyond what would be normally politically acceptable.[ii]

The Church’s Conundrum: Inclusion and Safety

While COVID-19 has ‘set the cat among the pigeons’ in the ethics of clinical practice and public health policy, the impact continues, raising new issues and challenges for many institutions, not least the church. Most recently, as countries open-up, and governments set policies which distinguish between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, denominations have made their own responses. Roman Catholic and Anglican leaders of Sydney have been quite clear about their reservations in following public policy.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher OP, in his message of September 9th, declared, “I would insist that ‘Jesus is Lord of all, and his gospel is a gospel for all. A ‘No Entry’ sign at the door of the church is wholly inconsistent with the Gospel preached inside.’ Race, gender, ethnicity, age, education, wealth or health status (including vaccination) must not be points of division within the Christian community or barriers to communion with Christ Jesus.”

The motivation for this stance is the high view that Catholicism harbours of the Church and the centrality of the Mass as the fundamental liturgical expression of being church. Moreover, speaking broadly, as evidenced in recent statements of ‘push-back’ from the Polish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the Catholic Church is wary of the extension of state powers as a weakening of democracy and a slide into authoritarianism. Something we have seen as not entirely without foundation.[iii]

There have also been evangelical responses, such as the “Ezekiel Declaration” recently published by three pastors from Queensland, directed to the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, which states concern for those suffering mental and emotional stress from lockdowns, and which appeals to Morrison to resist the policy of vaccination passports on the basis that such a practice “risks creating an unethical two-tiered society”.

In spirit and mood, the declaration reflects not a high view of the Church in the Catholic sense, but a libertarian ethos with a strong inclination toward a priority for individual freedoms. More disturbingly, the document raises questions of soundness as it slides into a barely concealed ‘anti-vaxxer ethos’, and mistakenly implies that vaccination will be made mandatory. The declaration appears to be primarily ideological. [iv]

For the Uniting Church in Australia, thinking our way through the current challenge of the conundrum of the ‘vaccinated-unvaccinated’ as we prepare to ‘open up’ is confronting. Rather than seeing the issue in the singular terms of inclusion, for us, there is also the issue of safety.

Robert McFarlane has succinctly explained it, “The first principle of safety for the most vulnerable implies that people who are not fully vaccinated may need to be excluded for the safety of the vulnerable. The second principle of inclusion implies that we can’t turn anyone away”.[v] https://www.insights.uca.org.au/vaccination-inclusion-and-exclusion-the-ethics-of-regathering-for-worship-in-a-part-vaccinated-world/

John Squires, in an article ‘On Vaccinations, Restrictions and Fundamentalism”[vi] https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/20/on-vaccinations-restrictions-and-fundamentalism/, notes that there is a strong defence of the priority of vaccination, and by extension mandatory vaccination, plus the need for that priority to be exercised in deciding who attends worship and who does not. Of course, within the opinion piece, the author accepts that there may be good reasons for people not being vaccinated, especially underlying health issues.

He also argues for the continuation of on-line worship to serve the unvaccinated from the safety of their homes, so that the principle of inclusion can still be maintained in unison with that of safety. He concludes, “So, at the moment, I will advocate for complete adherence to government restrictions. My faith calls me to work for the common good, to care for the vulnerable, to love my neighbours, both near and far. Minimising risk of transmission as we gather is our first duty. Ministry takes place in many ways other than sitting in an enclosed space for an hour once a week!”

Considering the Problem through the Lens of our Ethical Traditions 

Given the various Christian responses, which range from a priority for unrestrained inclusion of all comers to a physical place of worship, to a priority for safety, limiting physical presence at worship to the vaccinated alone, at least until the danger of COVID subsides, I think we need some help. My suggestion is to appeal to and examine the three major ethical traditions which have shaped and continue to shape the way we moderns think about ethics. My question is simply this: what would each have to say to us about this problem?                                                                   

There are three traditions that I shall briefly examine: the Ethics of Duty, the Ethics of Consequence, and the Ethics of Virtue.

Ethics of Duty

The ethics of duty are not concerned with the consequences or results of actions, but rather their inherent rightness. The point is do the right thing, do it because it is the right thing to do, irrespective of the results; after all results or consequences cannot be entirely foreseen or controlled. The father of the ethics of duty was Immanuel Kant, whose august figure you can see below.

Within the ethics of duty there are what are called categorical imperatives, one of which you would already know: “act so as to treat people never only as a means, but always as an end”. There is another categorical imperative which you may not know. In it, Kant points out that you should not do something if it cannot be done by everybody. Put another way, “you ought not act according to any principle that cannot be universalized”.

A simple example has to do with cheating. What a cheat wants is not that everyone else should do what they do, but that an exception should be made in their case.

Turning to the issue of the vaccinated and unvaccinated, of course people have a right to remain unvaccinated as a question of individual conscience, but it does not end there. The question must be, what if everyone were to do the same, to remain unvaccinated? Clearly the results would be catastrophic, with immeasurably more sickness, substantially more deaths, the collapse of medical systems and glaring economic damage. Moreover, communities and organizations have the duty to protect people from such a scenario. Short of mandating vaccination, the ethics of duty would tell us that it is both reasonable and necessary that a community differentiate between the vaccinated and those who choose in conscience to remain unvaccinated; and this for reasons of the community’s wellbeing and safety. That said, such measures should always be taken treating people, all people – to quote Kant – as ends not just means.

Ethics of Consequence

The ethics of consequence think about ethical issues, as the name suggests, from the perspective of what results from an action. Utilitarianism, a school established and shaped by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the latter caricatured below, embrace this idea.  Central to its understanding is that good ethical policy should seek to maximize the good or utility in a society.

Bentham and Mill explained that good as “happiness”. In other words, the broader and greater the happiness, the better. This ethics that focuses upon results, correlates closely to the way Christianity thinks about ethical issues: for example, the Golden Rule – “do to others what you want them to do to you” (Matt 7:12, Luke 6:31).

As an ethics for maximizing happiness, the ethics of consequence is particularly important for thought and decision making about public welfare and social reform: pensions, benefits, health, education; fundamental dimensions of what we refer to as the common good. This idea of maximizing happiness through welfare, was significant in the post-World War II reconstruction of many societies, including the establishment of the welfare state.

In broad terms, the ethics of consequence which focus upon the welfare of a community, would support the comprehensive vaccination of a society as a means of protection for its members. On the other hand, it does not do especially well when considering the rights of minorities, simply because they are minorities. Because it focuses upon the bigger picture of collective gain, particular heed needs to be paid to what it is prone to ignore: as J.S. Mill put it, “the rights of freedom of expression”.

This deficit serves as a warning in our current circumstances, to understand that ethical policy and practice – to be ethical – requires a committed balancing of majority rights with those of a dissenting minority. In this sense, any church practice that brusquely favours safety over inclusion, meaning the ‘exclusion’ of the unvaccinated, needs to be rebalanced.                                        

Ethics of Virtue

Virtue ethics is quite different to the ethics of duty or consequence in that they focus upon the individual character with the question, “what and who ought I be?” Going back to even before Aristotle – the gentleman we see below – virtue ethics dominated ethical thought for centuries. Thomas Aquinas was particularly important in developing a Christian ethics of virtue, in the light of his theology built upon the shoulders of Aristotelian thought.

In recent times there has been a return to virtue ethics as a way of completing the more modern approaches of rules-based ethics of duty and situational ethics of consequence. In a sense virtue ethics offers depth in that ethics are understood as a way of life.

Virtue ethics address two very human issues: the first, the emotions and the second, wisdom. In developing the virtues, the emotions are trained to serve the virtues, not undermine them. Likewise, in developing the virtues, practical wisdom (phronēsis) is cultivated, meaning that it is not sufficient to only do what a just person does, but to do it in a way that a just person does it. In other words, the emphasis lies with the how as much as the what.

Moreover, the content of the virtues changes depending upon the purpose (telos) that a person lives for. For the Christian, the primary virtues have been considered to be charity, patience and humility as pathways to living out the kingdom of God. For Aquinas, charity reigned supreme: “Charity is the form of all virtues”.

Finally, conscience constitutes a significant aspect of virtue and the moral knowledge entailed in living virtuously. That said, the virtue tradition insists that conscience can never be lazy, for we are bound to subject our conscientiously held views to rigorous analysis.

As we consider the question of how to proceed with the challenge of giving expression to the values of inclusion and safety in our services and liturgies, the ethics of virtue would counsel us to do so aware of the priority of charity and the need for an informed conscience.

Conclusions

What is it that these ethical traditions offer to us as we find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma, caught between two noble and necessary practices: inclusivity and safety?  All suggest, either explicitly or implicitly, that a good decision will likely need to include a balance of each.

Unconstrained inclusivity alone, will open congregations to the possibility of infection. Safety alone, will open congregations to excluding those for whom they love and care. After all what good is safety if it cuts us off from each other?  

Additionally, for those who refuse vaccination in conscience, the challenge is to ensure that their conscience is well informed, not determined by ideological bias or irrational partisanship.

Of course, there are multiple ways to balance these requirements. Each congregation, presbytery and synod will need to do just that, accessing and utilizing the knowledge of their specific contexts and the technologies to which they have access, keeping in mind that how we do things is every bit as critical as what we do.

Rev. Dr. Geoff Dornan, October 3rd, 2021

Geoff Dornan is minister in the Wesley Forrest Congregation in Canberra, ACT. He holds a PhD in Philosophy, Theology & Ethics from Boston University, USA.


[i] In March 2020, the government of Singapore, launched a smartphone application to assist in monitoring COVID-19 by enabling public health authorities to investigate infections and limit further transmission. In May 2020 the Australian government announced it would implement similar technology.

[ii] Kamradt-Scott, A., & McInnes C. (2012), The Securitization of Pandemic Influenza: Framing Security and Public Policy. Global Public Health, 7, 95-110, 106.

[iii] Jonathon Luxmoore, “Polish Archbishop criticizes anti-church Covid measures”, The Tablet, August 11th, 2021.

[iv] Timothy Grant, Matthew Littlefield, Warren McKenzie, The Ezekiel Declaration, https://caldronpool.com/ezekieldeclaration/

[v] McFarlane, R. “Vaccination, Inclusion and Exclusion: The Ethics of Regathering for Worship in a Part Vaccinated World”, Insights Magazine, September 17th, 2021.

[vi]  John T. Squires, “On Vaccinations, Restrictions and Fundamentalism”, blog at https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/20/on-vaccinations-restrictions-and-fundamentalism/